Is physician coaching a solution to burnout?

August 14, 2019

A new study finds that telephone coaching sessions can reduce burnout symptoms

As feelings of job dissatisfaction and burnout among physicians continue to spread, a new study suggests that coaching may help to address the problem.

            Researchers from the Mayo Clinic and Stanford School of Medicine conducted the study using 88 primary care physician volunteers from four Mayo sites. Participants were surveyed to measure their levels of job satisfaction, resilience, quality of life, feelings of engagement and meaning at work and levels of burnout. Half were then randomly assigned to receive 3.5 hours of individualized coaching, consisting of an initial one-hour session followed by 30-minute sessions every two to three weeks over a span of five months, all via telephone. The other half received no coaching.

            Participants could choose the topics on which they wanted to receive coaching, but all sessions followed the same general pattern of establishing goals, designing specific actions to incorporate into daily life for achieving those goals, and committing to next steps. 

            The participating doctors were surveyed again at the end of the study period. Among those who were coached, the proportion reporting high levels of emotional exhaustion decreased by 19.5 percent, and the prevalence of burnout symptoms decreased by 17 percent.

In contrast, among those who hadn’t been coached, the proportion reporting high levels of emotional exhaustion increased by nearly 10 percent and the prevalence of burnout symptoms increased by about 5 percent. Coaching did not lead to any significant improvements in levels of job satisfaction, engagement or meaning at work, however.

The authors note that other industries use professional coaching to enhance leadership and interpersonal skills and foster personal growth. Moreover, the fact that coaching can be done by telephone makes it universally available.

On the other hand, they say, the finding that coaching did not improve levels of engagement and job satisfaction means that coaching “is not a replacement for organizational efforts to improve the practice environment and address the underlying drivers of burnout and dissatisfaction among physicians.” 

The study, “Effect of a Professional Intervention on the Well-being and Distress of Physicians: A Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial,” was published online August 5 by JAMA Internal Medicine.